In memory of the most illustrious hanged man in history, whose birth we commemorate this month, I’ve decided to explore two European motion pictures that end with institutional hangings. The first won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 1977. “The Ascent,” by Soviet director Larissa Shapitko. It details a young revolutionary’s climb to the gallows. The second film, from year 2000, Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” features Icelandic pop singer Bjork as a blind, young, single, factory worker bound for the noose. Watch these two films and then come join the discussion.
We often reach back through literature to find parallels in treatment of subject matter. This months subject being capitol punishment I didn’t have to delve very far back for something stellar. Like Kafka’s “ In the Penal Colony,” “The Ascent” is not about capitol punishment. Nor are the two films in this series.,Even though their story lines climax with executions, they are about something much more personal to each of us. As I see them, both films are focused on the integrity, or lack of, in each character more than the right or wrong of the punishment. At least Von Trier states as much, on the commentary track for “Dancer in the Dark” (Criterion edition).
We aren’t given that much time to sift through credos or dogmas in either film. The masterstroke in Shepitko’s opus must be how we are permitted to acquire sympathy for the humanity even in the enemy, especially the ruthless police inspector, whom the camera successfully susses out for that torturing angel of conscience that flits up in his eyes.
“The Ascent” becomes, essentially, a passion play. We don’t realize it until the very end. Gradually, the character Sotnikov’s peculiar compassion takes us in, but his motives can not be instantly, fully ascertained. When he finally does transcend, we don’t have long to admire him. That’s is usually how this type of story unfurls. But instead of thieves on the crosses beside this savior, there swing innocent folk on those ropes, including an elder farmer, a single mother and adolescent girl. All three of those punished with Sotnikov are utter strangers to the condemned man, which seals his second to last breath with karmic remorse. The last one is reserved for a redemptive exchange between the accused and an innocent in the crowd of onlookers for whom this hanging has been staged.
I cannot adequately describe the poignancy with which the execution scene in this movie is presented. We’ll try to provide you with a reference. The image above, of a painting by Paul Delaroche, “Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1834) seems to harbor some of the same spirit. This roughly 8 X 10 foot canvas is among the most emotionally overwhelming objects I have ever seen. Coincidentally, this particular image of the painting that you are looking at has been cited as one of the finest images on the entire English Wikipedia. Search your conscience, while examining this image, for a key to the end of “The Ascent,” and “Dancer in the Dark.” What’s wrong with this picture? Lady Jane was elevated to the throne for less than a month before she was deposed and beheaded by a relative, in a bid for power by protestants against Catholics during that time. The victim was scarcely 17 years old.
“Dancer” will be zoomed in on next month. In “The Ascent,” the child actress, Lyudmilla Polyakova, gets to be a part of one of the most tender and lyrical passages in cinema, just as the noose slips around her neck. Shepitko orchestrates the scene for maximum heartbreak. It’s like something straight out of Chaplin’s “The Kid,” but with darker twists. Let’s begin dissecting this sequence with her approach to the noose. It was obviously tied up there for someone much taller. Because, evidently, not even the chief of the gallows could correctly anticipate the needs of this hanging. So a square apple box booster is hastily brought out and laid on top of the too short trunk of tree. All these things look gigantic next to the sparrow-like frame of the little girl. Those heavy implements of demise take on the scale of sandbox toy or circus ring geometry, reminiscent of children’s playthings. She’s a hatchling, for God’s sake. Those goddamn Nazi’s plan to hang her. That’s an act of terror. Tissues please.
Shepitko cares about human beings that will die before they outgrow the playground. She confronts us with an innocent being blatantly victimized. Watch this one take that giant step. She’s literally lifted off the ground by the hangman, by taking hold of his hand. The staging evokes some father helping his daughter on the jungle gym. She slips her head through the loop and peeks out at the spectators like baby bird on a limb. It is an evocation of pure pathos. Why should a child go through this? Authorities commit such atrocities to provoke fear.
What are we afraid of? Before he’s captured, in those wintery wilds of Russia, near the close of WWII, Sotnikov appears too physically weak to buck the status quo. Marooned in the forest, sporting a bad cough in his chest and a slug of lead in his leg, he rails against the branches on a low hung bow. Right out on the screen, for all to comprehend, here, a “man for the people” rues the masterplan’s unraveling, but at this stage, all we can see is a hurt soldier trapped like a rabbit under a tree. There’d be scant evidence that he’s a figurehead for the resistance, except for this one, raw expression of rage.
The backdrop for this rabbit hunt is rendered all the more claustrophobic with shrouds of snow dust whipping about all the time and a howling wind singeing everything else back down to zilch. By the way, let’s own up once more, thanks to Shepitko’s camera crew, to how old-fashioned 1:33:1 black and white film can convey the menace of frigid skies and fields as good as anything digital and new.
“The Ascent” has been called Shapitko’s masterpiece. I can’t find any reason why not. The filmmaker made her warm-hearted tragedy in the bitterest cold. Her ability to capture such subtly nuanced performances, consistently, in uncommonly long takes, under harsh conditions indicates bona-fide directorial grace. Her actors display world-class gifts. Sensors often made it hard for auteurs working inside the Soviet egg to make their movies competitive at international contests, but this one broke the shell.Prolonged, intimate close ups invite us to witness and be amazed at the ways ligament and scruple can hitch and mesh inside the human face.
In the political chess game of that took place during those times, history lays much of the blame on Nazis. Including this in her anti-war film probably helped Shepitko avert big showdowns with censors, but it was popular with everyone because she struck a universal chord. There was evidently enough of an openness to gender equality built in to that republic at that time, for an enlightened woman director to make positive contact with the outside world. Shepitko’s movie as well as Delaroche’s painting propose, at the level of conscience, we are all pretty much the same. Everyone that looks at them comes to the same conclusion.
“The Ascent” is an adaptation from the novella “Sotnikov” by Vasili. Bykov. I don’t know how it begins, but the opening of Shepitko’s film frames a blizzard on a Russian landscape. Violent gusts whip snow crystals and ice dust into pale, grainy gradations of grey. Silent telegraph poles lean both ways like staggered burial markers along the railroad right of way.
A vanishing veil of snow serves as a wipe reveal of a village, in the near distance, in which no one is left to defend.
This and a hand full of other shots are re-inserted after the finale of the film, like bookends. Was the filmmaker suggesting that the way out in of this predicament is the same as the way in? Or are we simply left reminded of home and liberty lost at the end?
A vacant village and machine gun fire is the first sign we see and hear as the film begins. Then a man’s upper body pops up from a hiding place and signal’s to retreat with his arm. Many heads pop up. What’s left of the population of that village ascends into view from the bottom of the frame. We watch from behind, the backsides of folks in retreat, fleeing in fear. Does this ascension accentuate a notion of this population’s “rebirth” as refugees, or perhaps The Rapture is being interpreted quixotically?
Either way, through lashing wind, extended families and neighbors carry what they may and make their way over snowscapes warily. A few rifles hang off uniformed shoulders of mutinous soldiers, shepherding those gentle folk as kin. As 2013 comes to an end and 2014 begins. Let us pray this historical trend stops before it sweeps us all in.
…next month, “Dancer in the Dark.”